Music

Music Review

Vivid ‘French Christmas’ from Boston Camerata

Anne Azéma, artistic director of Boston Camerata, led the group in a Christmas program at First Church in Cambridge.
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Anne Azéma, artistic director of Boston Camerata, led the group in a Christmas program at First Church in Cambridge.

CAMBRIDGE – “The interesting thing about Christmas,” said artistic director Anne Azéma during the Boston Camerata’s Thursday concert, “is that things mix.”

This is true in ways both obvious and obscure. Musical styles mix, of course, and no local group has better revealed the diverse styles and genres in which Christmas has been played and sung in various lands and eras. But the season also brings joy and uncertainty, and a holiday that is all about the coming of light takes place during the darkest time of the year.

That, perhaps, is why this year’s program — “Noël, Noël: A French Christmas” — began in a dimly lit First Church. After a brief brass introit, bass Joel Frederiksen chanted a 16th-century text known as “The Sybil’s Prophecy,” which dwelt on the Last Judgment. The appearance of a wounded God was ominously foretold.

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As the concert’s first section progressed, everything became brighter — the light in the church, the vocal palette, the prospects for salvation. But darkness resurfaced throughout the evening. The good news comes, but only through struggle and doubt, and that was the story that the Camerata — 10 singers and instrumentalists for this program — told so skillfully.

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One heard chant, polyphony, stately instrumentals, and songs. The symbols, sites, and characters were familiar — the Virgin and the shepherds, a stable in Bethlehem. Yet there were wonderful flashes of local color. One 16th-century song about Christ’s birth boasted, “Had the Child been born in Poitiers, we would have given him a nicer place to stay.”

This being France, everything on the program had a certain level of refinement, regardless of genre. The first half of the concert spent much of its time in church, while populist fare dominated the second. Some of the liturgical selections, such as Jean Mouton’s “Noël, noël,” had the pure, stark quality of early polyphony.

The voices — sopranos Azéma and Camila Parias, mezzo Deborah Rentz-Moore, tenor Daniel Hershey, baritone Donald Wilkinson, and Frederiksen — carried the program, though there were moments of uncertain pitch. A small wind band provided much of the accompaniment. Almost everything had a vividness one associates with this group in this space; the exception was Dufay’s “Magnificat,” for which the singers stood so far back in the sanctuary that the individual lines became blurry. Frederiksen sang Pierre Moulu’s “Pecheurs, souffrez” with understated eloquence and accompanied himself on the lute.

Perhaps the one universal value underlying Christmas is our desire for a sense of community, connectedness. So after the main program, Azéma led musicians and audience in “Il est né le divin enfant,” an early carol and, along with the Yule Log, perhaps France’s greatest Christmas export. Here was the light of the season in all its uncomplicated glory. And then with a smile and a “Joyeux Noël,” she sent us out into a world still swathed in darkness and cold.

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.